Markus Naslund has cleaned out his locker before. So Sunday at GM Place was nothing new for the Canucks captain. But what was different for the franchise's all-time leading goal-scorer was the steely resolve and conviction with which he spoke of next season.
He didn't appear angry at anyone or anything. After a few days of reflection on the recently concluded playoffs and the roller-coaster of a regular season that preceded them, Naslund sounded like a guy who can't wait for next season to get here. He wants desperately to show the hockey world he still has all the talents that made him one of the greats not that long ago. And while he improved many things about his overall game this year, Naslund simply wants to score more goals. And he didn't try to hide his desires as he met the media one last time.
"I know I can play better than I did last year. I'm going to come back and prove myself that I can play better and I think there are other guys who feel the same way," said Naslund of his 24-goal and 60 point regular season."I know I can play better. It wasn't a lack of effort, I wanted to do well. It just wasn't there. I know I can do better and that's the bottom line. I'm proud in what I'm doing and I want to show that I can still perform."
Naslund was given ample opportunity to deflect blame for his scoring struggles on a new coach and his commitment to team-defence, playing with a variety of linemates through the season and even on the bumps and bruises picked up over the course of 82 games. Naslund wouldn't go there.
What he did admit to, though, was that adjustment to not having Brendan Morrison and Todd Bertuzzi as his regular linemates night in and night out for the first time in years was tougher than Naslund expected.
"It was a big change. I was used to playing on a line there for a long time with guys that you got used to playing with and it affected me more than I expected. It took me a long time to find my grove and I never really played the type of hockey that I know I'm capable of," he says. "That being said, I feel great physically and I know it's more of a mental thing than a physical thing."
Naslund will have a longer off-season than he had hoped to find that mental groove and then return to Vancouver for the final year of his current contract. Soon to be 34-years-old, Naslund spoke with candour on Sunday about where he is in his career. And he sounds like next season could very well determine if there are more seasons beyond that.
"Right now, absolutely," he said when asked if he's taking it year by year from here on out. "My focus is coming back and having a strong season next year and hopefully have a lot of fun. After that, I'll sit down and make my decisions. I would like to finish my career in Vancouver - I think I've said that enough. And so that's all I can say."
Naslund knows that his future beyond next year will be an issue as the 2007-08 season unfolds. He's prepared for that and understands that those types of questions come with the territory of playing for - and captaining - a team in a hockey-mad market.
"I've played in Canada here for a while so I know that there'll be questions. But my focus is going to be on what I do out on the ice and I know I can control that," he says. "As for being the captain, I'll say it again, no it isn't a burden. I felt honoured right from the get go in 2000 when I got named captain. With the cast I have around me I think it makes it easier because it's not just me being the captain and it's all about me. It's a team and I think we're more of a team now than I think we've been since I've been here."
You get the feeling Markus Naslund was re-energized by the second half of the Canucks season and the fact he found his touch leading the team with four post-season goals including three in the five games with Anaheim. And if he can put his words into actions when he returns for training camp, then we should see a motivated Markus Naslund when the season rolls around. And that's great news for the Vancouver Canucks - and bad news for their opponents.
Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight. E-mail him at email@example.com